Manawydan fab Llŷr

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Manawydan’s Glass Door – water colour by David Jones

Visions and Propositions

Manawydan waits in shadow, biding his time, watching. I visualise him cloaked and hooded, looking as if over my shoulder, yet also withdrawn to a liminal space where a portal opens into the Otherworld.

Was he there when Rhiannon came? The tale* does not tell it, only that she came to claim Pwyll for a husband. Did Arawn watch from the other side?

Was one watching when her child was taken from the cradle by her side? Or when she waited by the horse-block for Pryderi to return?

The tale* tells that Pryderi, grown now, went to Ireland (or was that Annwn?) with Manawydan and his Brother Brân for the sake of their sister Branwen (but there was also a cauldron).

They returned with the head of Brân (just seven in all from a great army returned) and Branwen who broke her heart.

The Birds of Rhiannon sang to them then and time was still until the door – which Manawydan reminded them should not be opened – was opened; and they went to the White Mount to bury the head – Brân’s head – that had kept company with them when time did not flow.

Manawydan, alone now in Thisworld of the siblings of Llŷr, he who was “wise of counsel” as the Black Book has it**, took counsel from Pryderi to go to Dyfed and be with Rhiannon.

So they are wed but he watches Pryderi and then Rhiannon go through the enchanted fort into the Otherworld (he counsels caution – another door best not opened? – but will not hinder) and must wait for his chance to release them and restore the land.

So he waits until it is time to act. Then he acts. Like a gatekeeper opening and closing the Portal he watches – and enables – the coming and going of those who would pass and those for whom passing is a rite of passage.

-*-

Commentary

Consider the Triad, referred to in the Mabinogi, about the Three Golden (or noble) Shoemakers, one of whom is “Manawydan Son of Lludd” in one of the manuscripts of the Triads, though “Son of Llŷr“ in another. Rachel Bromwich says that this transference is common so that Llŷr & Lludd are interchangeable***. As Lludd is cognate with Nudd should we therefore regard Manawydan as the brother of Gwyn ap Nudd?

If Manawydan is a son of Nudd (Nodens), Brân and Branwen are also children of this god. By which perhaps we should understand ‘of his family’ or even perhaps ‘expressions of his nature’? Family relations between gods are never quite the same thing as those between people.

Beli Mawr is said to be the father of Lludd and Lleuelis****. But also in legendary history of Caswallawn (i.e. Cassivellaunus) leader of the Brythons who opposed Julius Caesar in his brief incursion into Britain in 54 bce. Many of the early kings of Wales traced their lineage back to Beli Mawr via Cunedda. Clearly here we are in territory where myth, legend and history merge and the difference between gods and ancestors is either confused or irrelevant, depending on your point of view.

But if Manawydan is an offspring (however understood) of Nudd, and shares an identity (however understood) with Gwyn, the identification of these two ‘sons’ of Nudd as Thisworld and Otherworld faces of a god, on either side of the portal, seems to cohere.

§

*‘The Tale’ here is the First and Third branches of The Mabinogi

** In the poem ‘Pa Wr yw’r Porthor?’ (Which one is the Gatekeeper?)

*** Trioedd Ynys Prydein (Third Edition, p. 419 & p.421)

**** In the medieval Welsh tale Cyfranc LLudd a Lleuelis

Gatherer of Souls by Lorna Smithers

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Available HERE

This is the third collection of poems and prose by Lorna Smithers chronicling her dedication to the Brythonic god Gwyn ap Nudd and it takes her quest to interpret and re-present his mythology to deeper levels of significance. It also defines her path as an awenydd, engaging in visionary explorations and written evocations of her discoveries. The book is divided into a brief introductory section followed by six longer sections, each taking the reader through a different historical period. A major source for any study of Brythonic lore is the medieval Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen. This tale is often drawn upon here, in particular the episode in the tale where Arthur kills Orddu “the Very Black Witch, daughter of the Very White Witch from Pennant Gofid”. The episode provides an imaginative frame for the chronology of Gatherer of Souls, spanning an immensity of time between the end of the last Ice Age to the present. The work opens with the migration into Britain as the ice begins to recede, led by a wise woman and her daughter, an already well-established matriarchal succession of witches who then take residence in the cave which they continue to inhabit until Arthur brings their line to an end. The closing piece of the book is a chilling present-day visionary confrontation in the cave on Nos Calan Gaeaf when the bottle containing Orddu’s blood is poured out and Arthur is confronted and defeated to bring the age of his imperium to an end.

If the killing of Orddu provides a mythic underlying theme for the volume, the role of Arthur in her death and his opposition to Gwyn ap Nudd, the implied father of Orddu and all her ancestors, provides the foregrounded mythic focus. The view of Arthur as a usurper of the old ways and conqueror of the gwiddonod – the giants, witches and other denizens of the world he brought to an end – is a theme that emerged in Lorna’s previous collection. It involves reconfiguring the heroic view of Arthur and viewing him as an archetype of the absolute ruler. So, in the final contemporary section of the present work, he returns “to make our country great again” which is about as up to date as you could hope to get in portraying a view of the Arthurian type in our own time.

As readers are taken through the successive ages covered by the work they will encounter much material gleaned from a knowledge of Brythonic lore that has been internalised and imaginatively re-shaped rather than simply recycled, much as the medieval tales in Welsh re-shaped Brythonic inheritance in a range of stories in prose and in verse to keep it alive for us to inherit. That lore tells not only of the emergence of Arthur as a power figure but presents Gwyn ap Nudd as a character who has retreated into the shadows, giving us only tantalising glimpses of his nature and the power he maintains in “keeping all the devils of Annwn from destroying the world”, as the Welsh tale has it. Lorna’s quest, then, is not simply one of discovery but also one of actively bringing Gwyn back into focus and out of the shadows to be recognised as the gatherer of the souls of the dead and Lord of the Otherworld.

The project includes re-telling stories from the Brythonic past, particularly those located in what Welsh medieval culture thought of as ‘The Old North’, the lands of Northern England and Southern Scotland where Brythonic culture made a last stand before retreating to Wales where the legends and myths were kept in the original language to perpetuate them in memory. So there is a substantial account of the story of Myrddin, not the ‘Merlin’ of later Arthurian stories but the figure on whom he was partly based, or with whom he was confused, by Geoffrey of Monmouth. This Myrddin ran wild in the Forest of Celyddon along what is now the border country between England and Scotland. Myrddin’s ‘madness’ when he flees to the forest after The Battle of Arfderydd, fought between Rhydderch and Gwenddolau, between christian and pagan, had also been incorporated into the Life of St Kentigern, but is reclaimed here as part of the narrative of the shift away from the old ways and the old gods to the new world which became medieval christendom.

It is true that this process began far away from Britain in Constantinople in the eastern part of the divided Roman Empire, when the emperor Constantine embraced christianity in the year 312 of the current era and, with more force, by later emperors such as Justinian who made christianity the official religion in 380 and Theodosius who began to actively suppress what he called paganism in an edict of 391. But the western Empire was slower to follow this change and by the time it was widespread in the West the Romans were leaving Britain, so the drama was played out over a longer period both within elite Romano-British culture (which Arthur represents) and within native Brythonic culture, further complicated by the arrival of Anglo-Saxon and Norse invaders who themselves underwent their own transition from paganism to christianity as time went on. This marks out Britain as a particularly conflicted arena as the emerging christian world view pushed for dominance. Figures such as Arthur become emblematic of the changes taking places while Myrddin, originally a victim of those changes, later becomes incorporated as Merlin in the Arthurian ethos.

So re-claiming what has been lost, and what was transformed, is a necessary part of a re-connection with the age of the old gods in our own time when spiritual allegiances are shifting and the character of Arthur as an opponent of that old order can be re-evaluated to restore the focus on Gwyn ap Nudd. This is Lorna’s project which also involves an animistic view of the world reflected in some of the work collected here. ‘The Shield of Rheged’, for example, is ingeniously addressed by re-telling the story of one of the ravens who were depicted on it and relating the image to other raven stories in the Brythonic canon. In more recent times, the folklore of Lorna’s own area is retold in stories such as the eerie tale of ‘The Lady of Bernshaw Tower’ in which a woman who might be regarded as a spiritual descendant of Orwen and Orddu, but who also has a negative ‘other’, shape-shifts and rides with The Hunter. The final section of material set in the 21st century contextualises Brythonic sources in modern terms and focuses on what we have to do now to bring about “the ruins of Arthur’s Empire and clear the way for the next world”. If this is an ambitious and demanding task, the writings collected here display a personal commitment and an imaginative vision that makes it possible to think it can succeed.

In Search of Sulis

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The reconstructed Roman Bath

The Roman town of Aquae Sulis, now the modern city of Bath, has accumulated many layers of history since it was settled by the Romans, within 30 years of their invasion of Britain, around the hot springs sacred to Sulis and re-dedicated by them to ‘Sulis-Minerva’. I went there recently to see what traces of Sulis I could find beneath the accumulations of successive occupations. As well as visiting the Roman Baths and Museum, I had also arranged to join a small group tour with one of the museum staff below the areas open to the public down to the level of Roman settlement now underneath the museum and surrounding streets. The famous Roman baths which are the main magnet for the many tourists who visit the site are in fact a nineteenth century reconstruction in the Roman style. Even in Roman times these were a public bathing area using water from the sacred springs but separate from the temple of Sulis-Minerva. The oldest part of the surviving building over the springs is in fact the so-called King’s Bath, named for Henry I. The medieval builders apparently had no knowledge of the Roman levels beneath as centuries of silting from the springs had overlain what was left of them.  Some traces were still visible to the Anglo-Saxons as the poem from those times known as ‘The Ruin’ apparently testifies:

This work is wondrous; fate fashioned its fall
Cement smashed; the work of giants come to grief.
Roofs have tumbled, ruinous towers,
Ravaged by frost ; roofs fallen
….

Although it is possible for visitors to walk around the recreated ‘Roman’ bath, the King’s Bath can only be viewed through windows and openings in the stone arches. Here the spring waters can be seen bubbling up into a pool within the derelict and empty medieval space and running off at one end towards the ‘Roman’ bath. This is the nearest that it is possible to get to the spring itself.

King's Bath
The Medieval structure around the Sacred Spring

On the way through to these baths, the museum has a reconstruction of the temple of Sulis-Minerva based on recovered fragments and limited excavations of the site which partly lies beneath the building which houses the museum but also extends out beneath adjoining buildings across the street and towards the medieval abbey situated next to the baths. Excavations beneath these buildings, all of which have their own protected conservation status as historically important later structures, have therefore been restricted.

The tour beneath the museum took us through cellars and along tunnels full of fragments of original Roman structures and over the bases of stone pillars now embedded in the uneven floors. Here we were standing at ground level of the temple beneath the street from where the voice of a busker singing above could be heard. As hard as I tried, it was difficult to imagine myself in the Temenos, the sacred precinct of the temple, before the shrine of Sulis-Minerva. That evening, when the crowds had abated, I stood in the street above where, until the early twentieth century, there was a fountain fed from the spring waters, and had more success locating myself imaginatively in that place.

Of the original Spring of Sulis we have little knowledge. The whole area around the site, in a loop of the River Avon, would have been a reedy marsh. There is evidence of Iron Age settlements on the nearby hills and the remains of a gravel-laid causeway approaching the springs have been discovered. So we do know that access to the site was ensured although no other building work has been found from this period. Perhaps the spring itself was sufficient for Iron-Age devotees visiting the site. If there are now too many layers of history over the original site for any aura of its numen to remain, what then of Sulis today? She remains as ambiguous as the so-called ‘Gorgon’s head’ that adorned the apex of the temple of her coupling with Minerva. Are these the snakes of Gorgon hair associated with Minerva’s protecting shield? And if so why is the face apparently that of a male? Or are they, instead, the swirling waters around the springs? This guardian of her site, as the site itself, remains a mystery for us to fathom in the depths of her waters and the layers from beneath which her divinity emerges.

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Aneirin as an Awenydd

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A page from The Book of Aneirin

 

Mi na fi Neirin
Ys gŵyr Taliesin

Neu chant Ododdin

Aneirin (or Neirin) was one of five poets mentioned in the Ninth Century Historia Brittonum as being active in the Sixth Century. The lines above are included in the series of elegies for warriors of the Gododdin tribe killed in the battle of Catraeth attributed to Aneirin. They seem to say “I who am not Aneirin / As Taliesin knows /…/Sang The Gododdin”. Or do they? Translators have tended to hedge their bets with something like ”I, yet not I …” for the first line. We might think also here of the line from the poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen: “As I am Merlin, and then Taliesin”. It seems that the persona of the bard can shift, that one prophetic bard can become another, or speak – inspired – in another’s voice. The act of creating the poem, in this view, comes from the bard drawing upon a power from beyond that inspires ‘song’, a condition which Aneirin here says would also have been shared by Taliesin.

It has been suggested that this verse and the one following from manuscripts in The Book of Aneirin actually belong to a separate saga about Aneirin (*) Taken together the two verses suggest that Aneirin lies beneath the earth in chains with worms or slugs crawling over him and that he was rescued from this place by Cenau whose praise he sings in the second of the two verses. The place of incarceration was “a place of death”.

There seems to be a conflation of two themes here: Aneirin’s rescue from a grave-like prison and his composition of a series of elegies by escaping from his everyday self. It is difficult to know for certain if these two themes are to be taken as significantly connected or if they stand against each other as separate pieces of information. It is not uncommon in this early poetry for unrelated facts to be conveyed together in a single stanza. But if they are connected, the release of the poet from captivity, or from death, and the release into the world of the verses which comprise The Gododdin would need to be taken as a single event. So the poet, who describes himself as “no weary lord” laboured through the night to produce his work “before the dawn” of the following day.

Whether this is to be taken as the night following the battle or the ‘night’ from which he was released, the composition of the Gododdin verses (or those of them that can be regarded as original) were the product of a night’s work during which the bard dwelt in a state resembling death. It’s important here not to think of him as writing down these verses. They would have been composed in the mind and remembered until – having been memorised and perhaps added to by successive generations – eventually written down centuries later. So what of Cenau who released him from whatever condition he was in to greet the dawn?

Cenau was a son of Llywarch Hen,  related to Urien of Rheged  and so unlikely to have fought at Catraeth. But if he rescued Aneirin rather than fought in that battle his “undaunted, bold” actions and his “shining sword” must have been employed in some other way. It could be that Aneirin was captured and that his “fair song” – as an earlier verse has it – saved him and that Cenau rescued him after he had composed the verses. But the narration here suggests that he was released from a death-like state, perhaps an awenydd-trance, after which Cenau rescued him or during which he guarded him.

So these verses may come from a different story, but collected with other extraneous material into The Book of Aneirin (as, for instance the ‘Pais Dinogad’ lines or the verses which apparently record other events than the attack on Catraeth {e.g. ->} ). If so then that story has been lost and these verses may be all that remains of it. Such a story might include events before the composition of the Gododdin verses. Even so, that they were composed by someone who was both Aneirin and Not Aneirin; that he was released (like Mabon) from an earthen prison, returning from darkness to light to sing his song; that it was the quality of his ‘fair song’ that saved him, and that Taliesin would also know these things: all point to the role of the bard as an awenydd, drawing inspiration from the Awen to ensure his immortality.

§

Further pages from Book of Aneirin can be viewed here.


References:

Aneirin Y Gododdin ed. A.O.H. Jarman (Llandysul, 1988)

Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin ed. A. O H. Jarman (Cardiff, 1982)

(*) Morfudd E  Owen ‘Hwn yw e Gododin. Aneirin ae cant’  in Astudiaethau ar y Hengerdd (Cardiff, 1978) pp. 136-139

Gramarye

 

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So Rudyard Kipling in ‘Puck’s Song’ from Puck of Pooks Hill. ‘Gramarye’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning both ‘grammar’ and also ‘occult learning, magic’. Another form of the word is ‘glamour’ in the sense of ‘enchantment’. Where does ‘grammar’ merge into ‘glamour’ to make magic? Consider that the earliest books of instruction for welsh bards, based on the even earlier purely oral methods of instruction, are known as ‘Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid’ (Grammars of the Chief Bards). Grammar, in the Middle Ages, was regarded as the ‘mother of the arts’. The secrets of the bards of Ynys Prydain were revealed alongside grammatical instruction in these handbooks. Versification and the structure of language were seen as one and the same study: the keys to the mysteries.

We are talking here of a time when literacy was possessed by only a few, and fewer still who were not using it more or less exclusively for ecclesiastical purposes in Latin. These select few were the holders of a skill which enabled them to give shape to a developing tradition to which only they had access. So to manipulate its history, and the ability to pass it on to the future, was an act of power involving both ‘occult knowledge’ and the skill to use it.

But, as the bardic grammars also make clear, both cynghanedd (the music of the language) and the traditional verse forms (the artistic shape of the language) are held within language itself, part of its hidden grammar which the bards had the power to reveal. As one modern theorist of cynghanedd puts it, the bards were instructed to “dathla yr anweledig yn weledig” {*} (celebrate the invisible into visibility). The same theorist also asserts that language has developed not simply as a denotive medium for naming and describing things in the everyday world, but also carries a deeper structure of meaning which may be hidden in its everyday use but which has the power to reveal otherness and, from that revelation, to create articulations of a hidden world. The welsh bards were special in that they produced an institutionalisation of this idea in the bardic grammars.

So grammar becomes glamour or enchantment, glossed as ‘gramarye’ in English in spite of there being no tradition of arcane handbooks of bardic practice in that language. But any inspired poet, or awenydd, in any language, will wish to fulfil the instinct to carry meaning from the hidden realms into the cultural sphere of common conversation and, by doing so, to infuse the world we know with hidden meaning. This is the only grammar that counts.

{*}  R. M. Jones  Meddwl y Gynghanedd  (Barddas, 2005)

Breaking the Spell That Lies on the Land

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Pryderi’s Tale

This is how it was when I went with Manawydan and Brân over the two rivers – Lli and Archan -: the Cauldron was there, though we did not come back with it for it was broken as was heart of Branwen. There was great grief on all of us. As for Brân, there was only his head to keep company with. We did not quite come back, at least not at once, but remained a while neither here nor there. Time would have weighed heavily upon us then but

The Birds of Rhiannon sang, both near and far, until seven years had passed, but had not passed, as clock-time and deep-time fell out of alignment.

So it seemed and it is only like that I can tell it. We went out over the sea then and might have reached the Otherworld, but we came to the island of Gwales and remained there between the worlds with a portal to Thisworld through a closed door. I remember Manawydan saying:

“Look, there is the door we should not open”

For eighty years of deep-time we were blissful there until clock-time, which had scarcely moved, touched Heilyn. His words echoed in one world from the other:

“Shame on my beard if I shall not open the door.”

There was no choice then but to go through the portal as Brân had told us. His blissful presence there could last no longer. We took him and buried him beneath the White Hill to become part of the strength and vigour of the Island of Britain as he had foretold.

Time pressed upon us now and it was a burden for Manawydan for the sovereignty of the Island had been usurped from him and he knew that he could not recover it in Thisworld. He was haunted, still, by the sounds of Rhiannon’s birds. So I spoke to him of my mother:

“She was the most beautiful woman in the world when she came from Annwn to woo my father. So she is still and if we go to Dyfed we will find her there.”

That is what we did. We found her there with my wife Cigfa. And if she was pleased to see her son she met with my companion too as if she had always known him. As they found each other fair we held a wedding feast for them and Manawydan seemed at peace for a time. Until something stirred between the worlds out of cognizance until that day on the Gorsedd Hill it broke though with a clap of thunder and a fall of mist. When the mist cleared there was a change in the appearance of the land: it was the same land, but before it was homely and close and enclosing,  now it was wild and strange to us. It was as it had been before it was settled.

So we had to hunt for our food and one day while out hunting a gleaming white boar broke cover and we chased it – Manawydan and I – until it ran out of sight. We climbed the Gorsedd Hill to look for it and there before us was a fort that had not been there before. We watched the boar run into the fort and our hounds after it. Then there was silence.

Manawydan said to me

“My counsel is that we do not go into the fort.”

I went in and found no boar nor hounds. There was a fountain and a cup, though no cup-bearer to offer it so I took the cup in my own hands and was instantly struck dumb and could not move. It seems to me now that I waited a fleeting second and yet for ever, though I was soon aware that Rhiannon was there with me and it was as if we were a mare and a foal in a stable.

-*-

Cigfa’s Tale

When my husband Pryderi came back from that expedition bringing Manawydan with him I was unsure of him at first. He was a deep and a brooding presence. He seemed to have brought with him a troubled mind and I could not see through to him. But Rhiannon took to him immediately. I suppose he had something of her own otherworldliness about him and it soon seemed like they would be a perfect couple. For a while everything was fine, until that day on the Gorsedd Hill when the mist came down. I’m sure it was something to do with the two of them getting together that caused it. That evening, when Manawydan came back without Pryderi, I could tell by the tone in Rhiannon’s voice that she had some idea what had happened before he said a word. There was no stopping her from going after him. I remember that eerie silence after she went into the fort and then it just disappeared in a shower of mist.

I was afraid then. My husband had gone. Rhiannon had gone. It was just me and him. What would he want of me? But I had nothing to fear from him. We went away for a while but soon came back with some wheat to plant; he said we could make a start on bringing back the land we had known. When the mice came and ate the wheat he knew what to do. He grew some more. Then more again until he caught one. I told him he was mad to keep a mouse in a glove until he could hang it on a gibbet. But he just kept on building it.

So they came, the emissaries, one by one as if from beyond Dyfed, but no-one came that way any more. One by one he countered them and refused to release the mouse, whatever they offered him. It seemed strange to me then, what he was doing. But he knew. He played their game and won, patiently waiting for his chance to confront that otherworld wizard. As if Manawydan knew that the mouse was his wife. So the wizard took out his wand and agreed to what Manawydan demanded. The land just seemed to resolve itself back to how it had been before all this happened. Then there they were – Rhiannon and Pryderi – walking towards us.

_*_

The spell was broken in Dyfed
and he who had usurped the throne
of the Island of Britain shivered.
For Brân stirred beneath him.

 

Bendigeidfran as a Giant?

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Brân’s head being carried back from Ireland as imagined in the animated film Otherworld

There are many giants recorded in the folklore of Wales[*]. Sion Dafydd Rhys told of many of them in his 16th century treatise Olion Cewri , regarding them as remnants of the aboriginal occupants of Britain as asserted by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain. Many of these giants are seen in traditional fashion as ogres of one sort or another. In the literary tradition this is also the case for the giants in the medieval Welsh tale How Culhwch Won Olwen. Each of them display an ogreish appearance, including Ysbadadden Chief Giant whose daughter, Olwen, is sought by Culhwch. She is not a giant but she does have some extra-human qualities such as the fact that white clover springs up wherever she treads.

In the second of the Mabinogi tales, Bendigeidfran (Blessed Brân) is also taken to be a giant, though neither his sister, Branwen, nor his brother, Manawydan, are giants. Brân himself does not display an ogreish appearance and only seems giant-like in parts of the tale. The description of him at the beginning does not distinguish him in this way at all:

Bendigeidfran son of Llŷr was crowned king over this island and adorned with the crown of London. One afternoon he was in Harddlech in Ardudwy, in a court of his, and one afternoon he was sitting on the rock of Harddlech above the sea with Manawydan Son of Llŷr and two brothers of the same mother as he – Nisien and Efnisien – and other nobles as would be fitting for a king.

In fact nowhere in the tale is the word ‘giant’ (cawr) used to describe him. The reason for regarding him as a giant are:

  1. Because it is said he has never been contained within a house.
  2. Because of his giant-like appearance to the Irish when he is wading through the sea to attack them and his subsequent action of lying across a river so his followers can cross on his back.

The first of these may not necessarily indicate that he is a giant. Though he has not been contained within a house, he happily sits in a tent that has been put up for the wedding feast of Branwen and Matholwch. Not being contained in a house might be a geas – a fated taboo the breaking of which leads to dishonour or death. Geasa are common in the Irish tradition, and often lead to the downfall of heroes when one geas works against another. When the Irish build a house especially to hold Brân, it is not long after he enters it that fighting breaks out leading to him being fatally wounded. The Irish had previously built a house especially to trap the giant Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid and his wife Cymidai Cymeinfoll who then escaped and brought the Cauldron of Rebirth to Brân, enabling him to give it to Matholwch.

The second reason is more convincing. The Irish see what looks like a forest and a mountain crossing the sea. Branwen explains this to them as the masts of Brân’s ships and Brân himself next to them:

 ‘… that was my brother, come by wading, for there was never a ship could contain him.’
‘What was that lofty ridge with the lake on either side?’
‘The two lakes on either side of the ridge are his eyes for he is angry.’

But there is a contradiction. Earlier it was said that the sea was not so wide and deep as it is now, and there were just two rivers to cross – the Lli and the Archan – to go from Britain to Ireland. It is thought that the Lli is on the Irish side and could be Loch Laoigh (Belfast Lough) [**] On the Welsh side the candidates for the Archan are either the River Arth which currently runs into Cardigan Bay about 15 miles south of Aberystwyth or the River Ystwyth which has its estuary beside that town. Both of these rivers run into an area of sea now covering a legendary submerged plain called ‘Mays Maichghen’[**] of which the submerged lands of Cantre’r Gwaelod also form a part. There is a triad (No. 44) [***] which mentions Archanad or Archanat being carried up ‘the hill of Maelor’ on a horse called ‘Dappled’. Maelor is the giant who inhabited the hill (currently known as Pendinas) overlooking the estuary of the River Ystwyth. Brân’s crossing of a river here where a giant lived would be fortuitous.

There seems, then, to be an element of double-think in the crossing to Ireland by Brân  and in the crossing from Ireland of Matholwch’s ships at the beginning of the tale. The sea is crossed in ships much as it would be now,  and when the tale was written down, but at the same time there is no sea, only two rivers, as it is known was the case before sea levels rose in the more distant past [****]. Could there also be an element of double-think in regarding Brân as a giant? He is clearly not a giant in the sense of most other giants of Welsh folklore or in comparable literary tales. Yet he does take on giant-like characteristics at key points in the tale; and the final carrying of his head to the otherworld location of Gwales,  the transition there by the singing of the Birds of Rhiannon, the supernatural nature of his head, all point to an other-than-human identity. Is he presented both as a medieval king, or one of the recent past for the medieval audience,  but also as an aboriginal being from that more distant past when the sea levels were lower? By inspiring such double vision can gods inhabit our world while also inhabiting their own.


My reference for the original Welsh text of the Second Branch of Y Mabinogi : Ian Hughes (ed) Bendigeiduran Uab Llyr (Aberystwyth, 2017) and his introductory discussion for suggested river names in addition to the specific references below.

[*] For a comprehensive review of Welsh giant lore see Chris Grooms The Giants of Wales/Cewri Cymru (Lampeter, 1993)
[**] Patrick Sims-Williams Irish Influence on Medieval Welsh Literature   pp.192-196 (Oxford, 2011)
[***] Rachel Bromwich (ed) Trioedd Ynys Prydein (Cardiff, 2006)
[****] For a discussion of the cultural geography of Britain at this time see Chapter 2 of Barry Cunliffe Britain Begins (Oxford, 2013).

The Conversation Between Taliesin and Ugnach

 

blackbookofcarma00evanuoft_0149
The Opening of the poem inThe Black Book of Carmarthen from the facsimile of Gwenogvryn Evans

One of the most intriguing of the ‘conversation’ poems in early Welsh is that between Taliesin and Ugnach. Two separate manuscripts of the poem have survived, one in The Black Book of Carmarthen and another in a separate manuscript also kept in The National Library of Wales. The poem has been interpreted in a number of ways and a few ambiguous words in one of its englyns have given rise to much speculation about the context for the poem. I will discuss these matters after giving my translation.  I should make it clear here that I read it as a straight-forward encounter with an Otherworld character whose identity I will also suggest below. A remarkable feature of the poem, if it is viewed in this way, is that Taliesin is reluctant to accept the invitation offered to him, given the apparently fearless forays into the Otherworld which are a feature of some of the poems attributed to him.

Who is Ugnach that Taliesin should be so deferential to him and yet refuse his offer of hospitality? In the poem he says that he is ‘Ugnach, Son of Mydno’ but Taliesin claims not to know him and there are no references to this character elsewhere unless we can equate him with the ‘Mugnach’ mentioned in the Triads as the father of Fflur who is beloved of Caswallawn. There he is named with the additional appellation ‘Gorr’ which is usually presumed to be an abbreviation for ‘Corrach’ (dwarf) but it might also be a scribal mistake or variant of ‘cawr’ (giant). Names ending in ‘-ach’ tend to signify supernatural characters such as ‘Wrnach’, a giant and Diwrnach, the Irish owner of a magical cauldron, both of whom feature in Culhwch and Olwen. Attaching the suffix -‘ach’ to the Welsh word ‘gwraig’ (woman) gives ‘gwrach’ (witch). So it might be that the name’s significance is as much in its suffix as in any genealogy.

Following the conventional exchange when two horsemen meet each other, Ugnach is immediately insistent that Taliesin should accept his hospitality – ‘You cannot refuse’ – but Taliesin, as politely as possible, does refuse. He says he is on his way to the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion (presumably Dinas Dinlleu in Gwynedd, a location which is the setting for part of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi ?) When asked where he is coming from he says ‘Caer Seon’, a place that has a number of possible locations.

Why will Taliesin not go with Ugnach? It may be that he really is in a hurry, but there is a certain tension in the exchange between them that suggests an evasiveness on Taliesin’s part and an insistent lure on the part of Ugnach. It has something of the atmosphere of the exchanges between the boy and the crone or ‘false knight’ in the folk ballad ‘The False Knight on the Road’ and its variants. Here, though, Taliesin does not try to cleverly outwit Ugnach but, in accordance with convention, to politely but firmly decline his offer. Does Taliesin fear the consequences of going with Ugnach, perhaps thinking he may never return? This suggests a skilled mediator with Otherworld beings who is wary of what this one wants with him.

The poem is written in the form of a series of three-line englyns with each of the three lines featuring end-rhyme, something not achievable in the translation but which, along with the syllabic requirements of the englyn form, may have a bearing on the particular choice of words and therefore may be a factor in the issues discussed below.

TALIESIN:

Horseman who rides to the fortress
With white hounds and great horns
I see you but I do not know you.

UGNACH:

Horseman who rides to the estuary
On a steed strong and steadfast
Come with me, you cannot refuse.

TALIESIN:

I cannot go there now
I have no time to delay
Blessings go with you from above and below.

UGNACH:

Warrior who is not seen here often
With the look of one who is fortunate
Where do you go and from where do you come?

TALIESIN:

I come from Caer Seon,
From contesting with strangers;
I go to the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion.

UGNACH:

Come with me to my fortress
For shining mead
And fine gold for your spear-rest.

TALIESIN:

I do not know you bold warrior
Who promises mead and a bed,
Your speech honeyed and fair.

UGNACH:

Come to my domain
For wine flowing freely.
Ugnach am I, named son of Mydno.

TALIESIN:

Ugnach, blessings to your Gorsedd,
May you have favour and honour.
Taliesin am I and I’ll acknowledge your feast.

UGNACH:

Taliesin, greatest of men,
Most accomplished in bardic contest,
Stay with me until Wednesday.

TALIESIN:

Ugnach, most richly endowed,
Grace to your great land;
No censure on me that I cannot stay.

§

On the face of it this seems to be an encounter with a character from the Otherworld, a character who bears a striking resemblance to Gwyn ap Nudd with his pack of white hounds. This is how I read it so this has had a bearing on how I have translated it. But other contexts have been argued for, mainly centring on the interpretation of the fifth englyn. There Taliesin says he comes from ‘Caer Seon’ where, in the second line of the englyn, he says he has been ‘ymlit ac itewon’. On the face of it these words seem to mean ‘fighting (or disputing) with jews’. Taking the word ‘itewon’ to be the earliest example of the modern Welsh word ‘iddewon’ (jews) would certainly give such a meaning for the line. This has led to one interpretation of the poem as an account of Taliesin returning from the Crusades, making ‘Caer Seon’ Jerusalem and ‘jews’ a generic term for those being attacked there [1]. A much more likely word, in that case, would be ‘saracens’ but there are several examples in medieval literature in English as well as Welsh of such words being mixed up or having a general application to refer to ‘others’. Elsewhere, saracens were even conflated with saxons, and the precise identity of peoples from other cultures would not necessarily be distinguished and the word for one could serve as the word for others, particularly if they were all ‘enemies’ [2] For this reason I have preferred to translate ‘itewon’ (which end-rhymes with ‘seon’ and ‘gwidion’) as ‘strangers’. There is, of course, no need to opt for the ‘crusade’ theory even if ‘itewon’ is retained as ‘jews’. There are possible locations for ‘Caer Seon’ on the island of Anglesey and near Conwy on the coast of North Wales. Taliesin could have been engaging in theological disputes or bardic contests (rather than fighting) with jews in either of these places, though it seems unlikely. Or he could have been coming from Arthur’s court at Caerleon, where such a contest is a little more possible.

Some scholars have suggested that ‘itewon’ might be a mistake for ‘cerddorion’, and that Taliesin was therefore engaging in expected bardic contests with other poets, especially if Caer Seon is taken to be a court of Maelgwn Gwynedd at Deganwy near Conwy. Similarly ‘itewon’ has been taken as a developed form of the place name ‘Iudeu’ , thought to be on the Firth of Forth, which would mean that Taliesin had journeyed from the Old North, possibly to North Wales or possibly to another destination in the Old North. But all of this is a distraction from the encounter with Ugnach. It seems clear that Taliesin is being invited to an Otherworld caer and that he refuses the invitation. If we may take Ugnach to be Gwyn ap Nudd two possibilities may be considered. One is that Taliesin’s boastful expeditions to the Otherworld, such as that described in Preiddeu Annwn, are conducted as raids either for treasure or for poetic inspiration. Here he is invited to visit as a guest, or perhaps is being lured there to account for himself. Clearly he is not prepared to go on these terms. The other possibility, suggested by at least one scholar [3] is that he is dead and that Ugnach is bidding him come to the ‘great land’ as he acknowledges it, and that he is either not yet ready to go, or he is going elsewhere. If so Ugnach may well be Gwyn ap Nudd, in another guise. The fact that Taliesin says he journeys to the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion has been seen as a possible reference to the Milky Way (Caer Gwydion), that is, he has his sights on a higher destination. The possibility that this would mean ‘Heaven’ in a christian sense, or an alternative Otherworld location of which Gwydion is the ruler – imponderable though that may be – is also worth pondering.

References

Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin ed. A O H Jarman (Cardiff, 1982)

‘Rhai Cerddi Ymddidan’ Brinley F. Roberts in Astudiaethau ar Y Hengerdd ed. Rachel Bromwich & R. Brinley Jones (Cardiff 1978)

Alexander Falileyev ‘Why Jews? Why Caer Seon? Towards Interpretations of Ymddidan Taliesin ac Ugnach’ in Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies No. 64 Winter 2012

[1] By Graham Isaac in an article discussed by Alexander Falileyev (see above).
[2] As suggested by Marged Haycock in her notes to the poem ‘Kadeir TeŸrnon’ Legendary Poems From The Book of Taliesin (CMCS, 2007) p.310
[3] Also proposed by Graham Isaac and discussed by Alexander Falileyev (see above).

The Grail

Nanteos Cup
The Nanteos Cup – currently on display at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth

The earliest surviving specific tale of the Grail is the unfinished 12th century story of Perceval (Conte de Graal) by the French Romance writer Chrétien de Troyes. Chrétien simply spoke of ‘a grail’; another french writer, Robert de Boron, later christianised this as ‘The Holy Grail’. Seeing the Grail as a Christian symbol led to it being identified as the communion cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. Such is the story attached to the wooden bowl also known as the Nanteos Cup, after a mansion in West Wales where it was kept for many years, though it had previously been the property of the nearby medieval abbey of Strata Florida. The cup has more recently been in the news after it was stolen but, since recovered, it is now in the possession of the National Library of Wales, where it is currently on display. I went to see it, though very little is left of it. It is easy to see how, in the later Middle Ages, such a cup should have attained this status as holy relics were the stock in trade of medieval monasteries and cathedrals, far more of them than could possibly be genuine. The relic itself is a symbol, metonymically representing the thing it purports to be or, perhaps, actually is.

But the communion cup, the dish of plenty, the cauldron of mystery have a far older lineage. Consider the words of Glenys Goetink who, in her study of the Welsh grail stories, asserts that, behind the Christian relic, the Grail “derives from one of the talismans found in the dwelling of the Otherworld god; it was of great significance in the ritual of conferring sovereignty upon the hero on the occasion of his visit to the Otherworld.” (*) This is certainly the implication of the story as told by Chrétien and in the parallel Welsh Romance Peredur. The Grail in Chrétien’s story is a dish held by a maiden in an episode in which the questing hero comes across a castle in a remote place. A bleeding lance is also carried through the room where he sits conversing with the lamed Fisher King. In the parallel scene in the Welsh story of Peredur the dish is a platter on which sits a severed head. In both cases Perceval/Peredur does not ask the meaning of the objects carried into the room. In Chrétien’s story Perceval awakes the next morning to find the castle empty and with only one way open for him to leave. After he has left he can’t go back and cannot find the castle again. In both stories the hero is later rebuked for not asking the question which would have healed the king, and then sets off to find the castle again. Chrétien’s tale is unfinished so we never know if Perceval eventually finds the castle. Peredur does find it after a random series of adventures which culminate in the killing, with Arthur’s help, of The Nine Witches of Gloucester.

There has been much speculation from different scholars about influences. It is likely that later medieval writers took the story from the French of Chrétien or his successors. Did Chrétien get his story from Brittany, from the same source as the anonymous Welsh author of Peredur, or were there different sources available to both of them? One certainly earlier possible source is the Irish story Baile in Scáil which several scholars have noticed contains parallel scenes to the episode of the visit to the Grail Castle. ‘Baile’ (modern Irish ‘buile’) means ‘frenzy’, though it is sometimes translated ‘ecstasy’ as in terms of the baile stories it describes the ecstatic frenzy which druids, female seers and other gifted people go into to gain visions or make prophecies, much as Giraldus Cambrensis describes the awenyddion in Wales. John Carey provides an extensive analysis of this tale and its possible links with the Grail stories. Here the frenzied visionary state is entered by a ‘phantom’ who turns out to be Lug, and a woman with a crown of gold who asks ‘to whom shall this cup be given?’. Carey says the following about the similarities between the two stories:

“In both, the protagonist comes upon a rich and mysterious stronghold, which is at first concealed from him. He is lavishly entertained by a gracious host, who seems to be identical with a figure who has acted as a guide earlier in the tale. A central part in the feast is played by a young woman who serves as custodian of a extra-ordinary golden vessel; and the apparition of the vessel is associated with the protagonist being served roasted meat. The question as to who it is whom this vessel serves is the pivot of both stories. After the feast, everything disappears: Perceval falls asleep, then wakes in an empty castle which he is unable to find again after he has left it; Conn passes ‘into the shadow’ of Lug, and is suddenly back in Tara.” (**).

Conn, unlike Perceval, is not found wanting and so his sovereignty, and that of his line backwards and forwards, is confirmed  and no further searching, such as that undertaken in the later stories, is necessary. In the Welsh tale the situation is eventually resolved, though the significance of the episode gets lost in the series of other adventures it is mixed up with. In the French tale, and even more so in those that came after it, the quest of the Grail becomes an end in itself. That is it becomes a tale of sin and redemption in the best Christian tradition of the Middle Ages. It also becomes a symbol of purity, or the virtuousness of those who seek it. But what was the original cup of sovereignty that seems still to be fulfilling that function in the Irish story? Carey is suggestive in linking it with the role of the cup bearer as identified by Michael Enright (***) and so, possibly back to Rosmerta. Proinsias Mac Cana also refers to this story and identifies the cup bearer as ‘the Sovereignty of Ireland’, the personification of the land itself, who, coupled with Lug, “can scarcely be dissociated from the Gaulish monuments to Mercury and Rosmerta”.(****)

References
* Glenys Goetink Peredur : A Study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends (Cardiff, 1975)
** John Carey Ireland and The Grail (Aberystwyth, 2007)
*** M J Enright Lady With a Mead Cup (Dublin, 1995)
**** Proinsias Mac Cana Celtic Mythology (Hamlyn, 1983)

Branwen

Bedd Branwen
Bedd Branwen (Branwen’s Grave) at Aber Alaw.
A Neolithic standing stone here was later covered by a Bronze Age burial mound.

A honno oed tryded prif rieni yn yr ynys hon
(And she was one of the three great progenitors of this Island)

How far back before her story was told
Did she proffer the cup of sovereignty of the Island
Her giant brother – or other self – holding it as a cauldron
Before the spring which pulses beneath Loch Febuil flooded the fair plain
So that the one who plundered and the one who held the treasure became one
Long before the islands of Britain and Ireland were sundered
Before the wolf-grey seas rushed in and so they were separate
Brother and Sister in the legends of the land
(though he would be a bridge between them).
Who then sought sovereignty and where was its source?

Each of them buried deep in the Earth of the Island
Held it in safe keeping : She in a grave at Aber Alaw,
He under the White Mount where Arthur sought him
Taking the sovereignty to hold for his own:
The raid on the White Mount, the raid on Annwfn,
The raid for the Cauldron there and in Ireland
Retelling the story over and over again
(as Culhwch got Olwen and the Giant was vanquished)
Re-living the quest of Bran for the Cauldron
Beneath the spring where Branwen held it.

Notes

In the Welsh of the Second Branch of the Mabinogi Brân – or Bendigeidfran – is a giant and is brother to Branwen and Manawydan, offspring of Llŷr. Brân has a cauldron which came with another giant from under a lake in Ireland and is sent back to Ireland with Matholwch when he marries Branwen.

In the well-known Irish story of Bran Son of Febul he sets off in a ship to sail to the Otherworld and meets Manannan Mac Lir on the sea who directs him on his way.

The lesser known story about Bran Son of Febul is recounted in some verses recording an exchange between Febul’s Prophetess and Bran’s Druid. The druid recounts how he had a vision of treasure hidden under a spring and of Bran’s quest to recover it. The Prophetess tells of how beautiful the plain around the spring was before the treasure was taken and how the land was flooded because Bran’s expedition offended the female guardians of the spring. The resultant flood formed Loch Febuil, now known as Lough Foyle.

Arthur in the Welsh poem Preiddeu Annwn, from The Book of Taliesin, sails in his ship Prydwen to raid the Otherworld in search of treasure, in particular a cauldron. One of his men, Lleawc, thrusts his sword into the Cauldron. In the Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur sails to Ireland to get a cauldron. One of his men, Llenlleawc, said himself to be an Irishmen, wielding Arthur’s sword, captures the Cauldron.

Brân’s head was buried beneath the White Mount to protect the Island of Britain. In one of the Welsh triads, Arthur is said to have dug up the head because he wanted to be the sole protector of the Island. So the symbol of sovereignty became the Crown.